21 Solid Alternative to Traditional College + What They Pay


Wondering what to do if traditional college isn’t for you? For many high school graduates, college may seem like a given. The story goes something like this: You’re supposed to graduate high school, go to college, get a degree, and get a job. This traditional path works well for some, but others may be left feeling like a square peg in a round hole. 

If this sounds like you, don’t worry. There are plenty of options other than college that can lead to fulfilling career paths. Need some examples? Here are just a few alternatives to college worth considering (and what they pay).


1. Military

Joining the military comes with many benefits. Not only can you serve your country, but you can also receive job training, tuition assistance, housing stipends, health insurance, and a steady paycheck. 

Additionally, only 20–30 years of active duty is required to be eligible for retirement, which means you may be able to retire at 40 if you join at 20. Even better, you may not need previous educational or work experience, and the enlistment process can take as little as a few weeks. 

  • How long it takes: A few weeks or more
  • Median pay: $70,000 per year 

2. Online college

Online college can be a great alternative to traditional college. Tuition is generally cheaper and schedules can be more flexible. This makes receiving an education more accessible, even if you have a hectic life. No matter what degree you’re seeking, there are almost always several quality online options available.  

  • How long it takes: 2–4 years
  • Median pay: Degree dependent 

3. Culinary school

If cooking is your passion, why not make it your career? Culinary school can help set you up for success as a chef or professional caterer. The program lengths vary depending on what school and credentials you choose, but you can typically complete it in a matter of months. 

  • How long it takes: 6 months–4 years 
  • Median pay: $56,920 per year 

4. Cosmetology school 

Cosmetology school can be a great option for creatives. Typically, cosmetologists become hairstylists or barbers, but these aren’t the only careers. Some become movie set stylists, editorial stylists, educators, or brand ambassadors, to name a few.  

  • How long it takes: 1–2 years
  • Median pay: $42,900 per year
College alternatives with flexible schedules: cosmetologist/barber, online college, plumber, or starting a business.

5. Massage therapy school

If you enjoy helping others, massage therapy may be a fulfilling career path. Massage therapy is also a growing career, with employment expected to grow 32% between 2020–2030 — much faster than the average. 

  • How long it takes: 5 months or more 
  • Median pay:$46,910 per year

6. Auto mechanic trade school

Prefer to work with your hands? Becoming an auto mechanic or technician could be the perfect fit. Depending on your passion, you can work with typical cars, diesel trucks, or motorcycles. Auto mechanic school is also usually much less expensive than traditional college.   

  • How long it takes: 2–4 years
  • Median pay: $46,880 per year

7. Welding school 

Welding school can set you up for a career in a variety of industries — from car manufacturing to jewelry making. Program lengths vary depending on the location and desired certifications, but can usually be completed in a few weeks up to six months. 

  • How long it takes: 6 months 
  • Median pay: $47,010 per year 
College alternatives that take two years or less: welder, massage therapist, personal trainer, or real estate agent.

8. Plumbing apprenticeship

Most states require a plumbing license in order to work as a professional plumber. State requirements vary, but they often require hands-on training through an apprenticeship that can be anywhere from about two to six years long. As an apprentice, you typically will get paid during this learning period. 

  • How long it takes: 2–6 years
  • Median pay: $59,880 per year

9. Carpentry apprenticeship

If you enjoy math but want a job that’s more hands-on, carpentry may be a great option. Carpenters often use basic geometry as they construct projects like home renovations or even theater sets. Like plumbing, carpentry apprenticeships typically pay you as you learn.  

  • How long it takes: 2–5 years
  • Median pay: $48,260 per year

10. Electrician school 

Electrician programs often involve an apprenticeship alongside classwork and exams. Again, apprenticeships usually come with a steady paycheck. Electricians are among the best-paid trade workers, though the work can sometimes be physically demanding. 

  • How long it takes: 2–4 years
  • Median pay: $60,040 per year

11. Firefighter

Firefighters are an important part of any community. In this career, you can wake up every day knowing that you make a difference. Hours can be long — typical shifts run 24 hours on, 48 hours off, or 48 hours on, 96 hours off. If these hours don’t bother you, though, firefighting can be a rewarding career, and no degree is required.  

  • How long it takes: 4–6 months 
  • Median pay: $50,700 per year

12. Coding bootcamp 

Coding bootcamps typically provide fast-tracked education for in-demand fields like web development, UX design, data science, or software engineering. The cost is typically low when compared to traditional college, and some bootcamps even hold off on collecting payment until students find employment. 

  • How long it takes: 4–6 months
  • Median pay: $95,460 per year
High paying college alternatives: coder, pilot, electrician, or brickmason.

13. Start a business

Working for yourself can come with many perks like setting your own schedule and deciding your prices. Starting a business can be a small-scale operation, like advertising your photography or videography skills on social media. Or, it can be a large-scale business, like opening a franchise or starting an agency. 

14. Tattoo apprenticeship 

If you enjoy connecting with people and creating art, you may enjoy tattooing. Becoming a tattoo artist does not typically require education beyond a bloodborne pathogen certification. However, most artists hone their skills with an apprenticeship before entering the field. 

  • How long it takes: 1–3 years
  • Median pay: $49,960 per year

15. Real estate agent 

The path to becoming a real estate agent is straightforward — usually, all you need to do is pass state licensing exams and join a brokerage. Real estate agents get paid on commission, which means they earn a percentage from each home bought or sold with them. This means your income is directly tied to how successful you are. 

  • How long it takes: 4–6 months
  • Median pay: $48,770 per year

16. Personal trainer

As a personal trainer, you will help clients achieve fitness goals such as weight loss, muscle gain, or improved health. Many personal trainers work at local gyms, but you can also choose to be self employed if you want more control over your schedule and pricing. To become a personal trainer, you must pass the Certified Personal Training (CPT) Examination.   

  • How long it takes: 3–6 months 
  • Median pay: $40,700 per year

17. Flight attendant  

Love traveling? Becoming a flight attendant can help you see the world — and get paid for it. Usually, the requirements are simply to be at least 18 years old and to have a high school diploma. However, the hiring process is quite competitive and can take about three to six months to complete. 

  • How long it takes: 3–6 months 
  • Median pay: $61,640 per year
College alternatives that don't require a degree: military, firefighter, tattoo artist, or flight attendant.

18. Pilot

Becoming a pilot is another way to travel for work, and it usually pays well. Even the lowest 10% of pilots earn about $100,110 annually. To become a commercial airline pilot, you will need to earn your pilot’s license (about two months) and complete 1,500 hours of flight time (about two years). 

  • How long it takes: 2 years
  • Median pay: $134,630 per year

19. Wind turbine technician

As a wind turbine technician, you will install, monitor, and repair wind turbines. Typically, windtechs learn their skills by attending technical or community colleges where they receive wind energy technology certifications. After receiving proper certifications, windtechs also usually need to receive an additional year of training on the job. 

  • How long it takes: 1–3 years
  • Median pay: $56,260 per year

20. Brickmasonry apprenticeship 

Brickmasons use bricks or other materials to build walls, fireplaces, walkways, and other structures. Typically, brickmasons learn their skills through an apprenticeship, which means they typically get paid as they learn. 

  • How long it takes: 3–4 years
  • Median pay:$61,430 per year

21. Take a gap year

If you’ve researched alternatives to college and still don’t know what to do, you can always take a gap year. Gap years can give you time to travel, try new things, and see what you enjoy. You can plan your gap year yourself, or you can participate in planned gap year programs. 

College isn’t the only way to invest in yourself — apprenticeships, trade schools, and other specialized training courses can also be great career pathways. If you need help financing your college alternative, some student loans can apply to education outside of traditional college. 



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